Independence, devolution and power

When I first saw this tweet, late last Saturday night, my immediate and admittedly facile response was “Neither of them”. Alex Salmond was propounding a vision for an independent Scotland that was no doubt seductive for many, but was panglossian in its optimism. For me, the Yes campaign was irresponsible in the way Salmond blithely dismissed all requests for detail or serious engagement with potential risks. It was premised on a blatant failure to acknowledge the geopolitical realities that an independent Scotland would face. Cameron, on the other hand, would seemingly say just about anything, panicking and offering ever greater concessions, if he thought it might increase the chances of a No vote. The cynic might say that if Cameron’s last minute appeals were filled with emotion it was just as likely to be distress at the thought of an early exit from Number 10 as it was at the thought of the union breaking up.

I didn’t envy the voters of Scotland their choice. On one side, the picture being painted of the post-independence world was inaccurate in ways that were rather irresponsible. And that wasn’t even allowing for all the areas in which we just didn’t know what might happen. On the other side, enticements from a set of Westminster politicians who have repeatedly proven themselves unable or unwilling to deliver on such pledges and largely motivated by self-preservation or preservation of sectional interest. Who to believe?

I guess we will never know how much the various promises affected the voting. At the moment all we know is the outcome. The referendum is history.

We are beginning to see the contours of the post-referendum game. And the game is beginning to look ugly. It would also appear that a new settlement for Scotland may not take centre stage.

While in the immediate aftermath of the referendum many pundits are willing to declare that nothing will ever be the same again, in many respects things are returning to normal rather rapidly. As soon as the votes were counted the egregious Farage reappeared all over the media sounding off. And Cameron’s speech on Friday should, in my view, have set all sorts of alarm bells ringing. The issue of Scottish independence was already drifting down the agenda as thoughts turned to party political manoeuvring in the preparation for the next General Election.

His first move has been to tie the devolution of more power to Scotland to dealing with the English question. Steve Richards captures the situation neatly:

For the Scots, it is the equivalent of buying a house only to discover the deal will go ahead when a blazing row over planning permission nearby is resolved at the same time.

The English question has been an outstanding question for a long time precisely because it is a complex constitutional issue to resolve. Yet, Cameron thinks he is able to magic up a workable solution this side of the General Election. Any such “solution” is inevitably going to be top-down and rushed. It is therefore very unlikely to command broad-based support. That is hardly a sensible basis for delivering profound and durable constitutional reform.

English Conservatives see it as straightforward. They trot out the line that we need an English Parliament so that we can have “English votes on English laws”, but that, in one sense, is precisely the problem. What are English laws? As Martin noted briefly this morning, changes to policy in England have ramifications for policy in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, if the commitment to maintain the Barnett formula is honoured. Unless there is a more fundamental structural reform, policy decisions in the countries remain deeply entangled.

These are technical issues about the operation of an English Parliament. They don’t begin to engage with the politics. If the Conservatives preference for a new devolved constitutional settlement is a Parliament for each of the four countries of the UK we should be clear that from an English perspective that represents no devolution at all. That is a structure which is designed to preserve the power of Westminster and ensure that policy continues to pander primarily to the preferences of the City of London and the Greater South East. Which was the source of much of the discontent in the first place. But now it would have the added bonus of a baked-in Conservative majority on “English” issues. Or at least that is the Conservative assumption. It would be interesting to see how many votes in the House of Commons over the last couple of decades would have gone the other way if Scottish Labour MPs had been prohibited from voting.

The Conservatives have been out and about arguing that Ed Miliband is already “reneging” on the pledges made to the Scottish people because he is making support for greater devolution contingent on devolving power from Westminster. Devolving power from Westminster is most probably to Labour’s advantage. But devolution to some form of regional tier in England has got to be the spatial analogue of Scottish or Welsh devolution. An English Parliament representing over 50million people can hardly be thought of as devolved in any meaningful sense.

Previous attempts at English devolution have not proved notably successful, but that was in part because Westminster was not actually willing to devolve very much power. Previous attempts at devolution have not proved notable popular with local populations. But perhaps this time things are different. Certainly, political elites in various regions or conurbations are keen to wrestle power from the centre. Whether or not local populations are more supportive of sub-national governance structures now than they were 10 years ago is a moot point. It may well be the case that they are. After all, they’ve had the experience of a further 10 years of region-blind, London-centric Government, including four years of austerity. There may well be an appetite for more freedom and self-determination.

The Conservatives were quick out of the blocks with the argument that regional devolution is off the table because the last thing we want is to create another tier of politicians. But such statements simply highlight the fundamental problem. The point is not that a new sub-national tier is created as well as current governance structures. The point is that the sub-national tier takes over power from Westminster and that the Westminster Parliament therefore scales back. But this is a point that seems inordinately difficult to grasp for those with an interest in preserving our over-centralised system.

That is why political systems are reluctant to decentralize of their own accord. Power is more frequently wrestled from those who hold it than it is given away willingly. Key actors in this drama are therefore going to be the advocates of stronger sub-national government outside the Westminster Village. I am reasonably confident that it is only if they are able to keep the pressure up that we will avoid a reassertion of the status quo ante.

That is not to say that stronger sub-national government would be an unalloyed blessing. It raises important questions about spatial equity, for example. It is notable that the strongest advocates of greater devolution of powers in England are the stronger urban areas that believe they would do relatively well out of such a move. But what about the rest?

These are complicated questions that need careful thought and debate. The idea that we can arrive at a satisfactory reconfiguration of the UK state over the next seven months, in the run up to a closely fought General Election, is, shall we say, slightly implausible.

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

Print Friendly, PDF & Email